The Library: A World Encompassed

Why do we collect books? Much ink has been spilled over this question. A well-known attempt at solving the mystery is Muensterberger’s Collecting: An Unruly Passion, a curious study brimming with psychological gobbledygook. According to the author, collecting is nothing more than an attempt to overcome a traumatic experience or to compensate for a loss suffered in early childhood. The collector surrounds himself with “magic objects” allowing him to conquer traumas. Muensterberger discusses the history of the obsessive bibliomaniac Sir Thomas Phillipps as a case in point.[1] However, he seems to forget that books are more than mere (magical) objects: they also have a rational appeal, which is their intellectual content.

To some extent, the book collector can be compared with a poet. Reflecting on the nature of poetry in his acclaimed memoir Speak, Memory, Nabokov remarked “that the poet feels everything that happens in one point of time. Lost in thought, he taps his knee with his wandlike pencil, and at the same instant a car (New York license plate) passes along the road, a child bangs the screen door of a neighboring porch, an old man yawns in a misty Turkestan orchard, a granule of cinder-gray sand is rolled by the wind on Venus, a Docteur Jacques Hirsch in Grenoble puts on his reading glasses, and trillions of other such trifles occur – all forming an instantaneous and transparent organism of events, of which the poet (sitting in a lawn chair, at Ithaca, N.Y. ) is the nucleus.”[2]

Surrounded by books from various ages, the collector is the nucleus of a myriad of events taking place at numerous points in time and space. From a distant he observes James Cook being clubbed to death on a paradise-like beach, with Spinoza he reflects on the laws of physics governing our lives, he follows Henry Ellis to Hudson Bay in search of the Northwest Passage (only to find some unnavigable rivers), he encounters a polar bear and gives it the scientific name of Ursus maritimus, during a feverish night in Malaysia he suddenly realizes that species evolve by a process of natural selection, through a self-made telescope he looks at Saturn – the book collector, in other words, lives many lives, triumphing over space and time. Sitting in a chair in a small house, the last sunbeams of a warm autumn shining through the windows, the collector is the nucleus of an instantaneous and transparent organism of events.

[1] Muensterberger, Collecting: An Unruly Passion (New Jersey, 1994), pp. 73-100.
[2] Nabokov, Speak, Memory (New York, 1966), p. 218.
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